Interview Ali al-Atassi

"There Is a Need for Pressure from Inside of Syria"

After the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Lebanon many experts assume that the events will have a political impact on Syria. Bernhard Hillenkamp spoke with Mohammad Ali al-Atassi, Syrian civil society activist and journalist of the Lebanese daily "an-Nahar"

What is the current situation of civil society in Syria?

photo: AP
With the arrest of four prominent figures of the opposition the "spring of Damascus" soon came to an end

​​Ali al-Atassi: First of all, I would like to say a few words about the background of civil society in Syria. Civil society in Syria may not correspond to a strict definition of political science, as it evolved in the West. For example, independent NGOs are legally forbidden in Syria. However, there are political initiatives outside of the official realm of the Syrian government that can be considered under the term civil society.

After years of political repression, political activities in Syria do exist as a kind of self-defence. But fear remains strong among Syrians. Although at the end of Hafiz el-Asad's reign a limited number of political prisoners were released, society, at large, continued to be marginalized.

When Bashar al-Asad, Hafiz al-Asad's son, became the heir to political power in Syria and the constitution was changed within 30 minutes, some intellectuals and dissidents were shocked. They felt that it was time to do something. At the beginning of Bashar's term, it was not clear how politics would evolve. A period of relative openness and tolerance began. Contrary to Iraq where most intellectuals and dissidents were eliminated or forced into exile, Syria has not lost its intellectuals.

They started to author petitions and organize gatherings to discuss political issues. The so-called Damascus Spring began. Three main demands were made at this time: First to lift the emergency law, second to release the political prisoners and allow the return of exiled politicians, third to introduce political reform. But with the arrest of four prominent figures of the opposition, Riyad al-Turk, Riyad Saif, Ma'moun al-Homsi and Arif Dalila, the spring of Damascus soon came to an end. The regime again started to threaten society.

But times have changed. The revolution in information technology and media as well as the broader regional changes make it impossible for the Syrian government to turn Syria into a big prison once again. Syrian society is increasingly exposed to the outside world.

After five years of Bashar al-Asad, it has become clear that economic reform cannot work without political reform. However, the regime is not willing to introduce political reform. There is a need for pressure not only from outside but from inside of Syria.

What impact did the breakdown of the Lebanese-Syrian security apparatus in Lebanon have on Syria and the Syrian civil society?

Al-Atassi: The security apparatus plays a fundamental role in Syria. It has established a system of fear. This system suffered a defeat in Lebanon. The regime does not arrest political leaders as it did before, but this does not mean that the system has changed. There are no fundamental changes. The system has become weaker but power is still in the hands of the same ruling elite. For a real improvement, there has to be a change within the ruling elite.

Not even the return of exiled politicians can be seen as an effort to deal with domestic politics in a more productive way?

Al-Atassi: Only a limited number of exiled politicians have returned, maybe three or four. Two were arrested on their return. There has to be an amnesty that permits exiled politicians to return and guarantees them that they will not be arrested.

What role do political parties play in such a process?

Al-Atassi: The government talked about issuing a law that would regularize political parties. But I do not think that they are really interested in allowing new political actors to participate in politics. The government only wants to give itself a new legitimacy.

It is time for the opposition parties to unite. They often live more in the past than the presence. The leftist and liberal groups as well as the Muslim Brotherhood have to make alliances and work on a common democratic program. The opposition parties are currently working on a national conference to engage in a dialogue together. We are in need of new political figures who give voice to society's concerns.

What role do human rights activists play?

Al-Atassi: There are a few human rights groups in Syria but not all of them are primarily interested in human rights. At times, they are more interested in politics. They are active in human rights issues as a substitute for their political intentions. The human rights activists are important, but their number is limited. They play a crucial role in civil society.

Where are the Islamists?

Al-Atassi: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has learned from the Egyptian experience. It is moderate. It suffered a lot in the eighties. In Western media it is often portrayed as a potential replacement of the Syrian government. This is not correct. The Muslim Brotherhood today represents only a part of Syrian society. Its radical current was wiped out in the early 1980s by the Syrian government. There is also the official Islam which cooperates with the regime and is not involved in politics. Among the sunnis other political non-islamist currents, also most of the sunni Kurdish groups, do not subscribe to islamist thinking. Besides around 20 percent of the population in Syria are not Sunnites, but other minorities. Islamists are only a minority.

Have the developments in Lebanon any influence on Syria?

Al-Atassi: The case of Lebanon is very different from the Syrian. Syrian foreign troops were stationed in Lebanon. The international community asked for their withdrawal. In Syria it is not an international affaire with potential foreign intervention.

But the developments in Lebanon have shown the Syrian people that political change is possible with peaceful means. They also showed the importance of a unified opposition in order to mobilize people to demonstrate in the street. Last but not least, they showed that the army can stay neutral.

However, we do have to keep in mind that Lebanon has been more exposed to the outside world than Syria. Its media is far more independent. It was partly due to the presence of foreign media in Lebanon – all the demonstrations were broadcasted direct – that the opposition was not suppressed. All this makes it unlikely that the same events will be repeated in Syria.

Today Syria is weak. It has lost its political partners in the region. And the American pressure on Syria is strong. The Syrian officials should realize that if they want to save their country from this pressure, they should work with the opposition and the people in order to achieve political change. The problems are obvious and Syria cannot cover its domestic problems by using the pretext of the situation in Iraq or Lebanon. The Syrian regime has to start a dialog with its people.

Is there a chance that the Syrians will follow the Lebanese example?

Al-Atassi: I do not think so. As I already said, the situation in Syria is very different. In Lebanon it was a problem between two states, whereas in Syria it is a problem between the state and its people. Besides, did the Lebanese follow the Iraqi example? Did the people in Czechoslovakia follow the Polish example? Every country has its characteristics and specific situation.

Political change in Syria should come from within Syria. Nevertheless, Europe and the West, in general, should keep their pressure on the Syrian regime to introduce political reform and respect human rights. They should not fall into the trap to believe that the Islamists are the only alternative to the regime. The Islamist threat is created by the regime. It does not exist anymore.

Interview: Bernhard Hillenkamp

© 2005

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